Nature house mulled

Environmental centre floated for heritage site

ONE of the oldest homes in the Lower Mainland may mark its 140th birthday by becoming a nature centre.

The Navvy Jack house on Argyle Avenue, the oldest continuously occupied home in the Lower Mainland, could become a nature nexus if the West Vancouver Streamkeepers Society has their way.

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The notion of a historic site doubling as a learning centre appealed to West Vancouver council, who voted unanimously July 8 for staff to return with a business plan for the project.

"It's not necessarily about history or First Nations people, it's about what existed here before anybody," said streamkeepers president John Barker.

The streamkeepers society and the district are currently slated to split an approximately $5,000 bill on a structural and building code assessment to judge what upgrades might be necessary for the house.

"If you determine it is worth saving, it has to have a new roof or we're going to lose the house," said Bill Chapman, a streamkeepers director. "We're currently growing a bigger crop on the roof than we are on the ground."

Under the current plan, the home's second floor would remain a living space for the current tenant, Lloyd Williams, who has lived in the house for more than 40 years. Williams has written to say he's enthused about the idea of a nature house on the property.

"It would be a gathering point for all ages to gain insight and information about the natural environment so special throughout our community. This appeals to me," he wrote.

The future of the house is even more important given the recent development discussions surrounding Ambleside's waterfront, he said.

"The house has a lot of character . . . and I would hope it would be retained in some way, other than an eatery of some kind," he wrote.

The house was likely built in 1873 and deserves to be recognized as a tangible piece of history, according to Williams. The district purchased the house in 1990. Williams has a lifetime tenancy agreement with the district.

The concept of a nature centre amid the clumps of crabgrass on the waterfront is a fine idea, according to Mayor Michael Smith.

"What could possibly be more exciting along that waterfront than this nature site?" he asked. "What's there now is far from ideal in my mind."

Smith was also pleased at how the idea originated. "We've got community groups stepping up and doing this instead of having to pay staff to come up with all these initiatives," he said.

While agreeing that a nature centre is an excellent idea, Coun. Craig Cameron successfully lobbied for other West Van community groups to have a chance to pitch their ideas for the house.

Coun. Michael Lewis was also supportive of the idea but concerned about who will end up footing the bill. "I certainly hope that any business plan that comes back is not really just 'This is how much it costs, will you cut us a cheque?' I hope that there's a participatory component."

Just a little younger than Canada itself, the house was built by John Thomas, a Welshman known as Navvy Jack. He ran a ferry service on Burrard Inlet and sold gravel taken from the Capilano River.

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